ABOVE: ANTOINE FUQUA ON THE SET OF OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. PHOTO COURTESY OF PHIL CARUSO
An unapologetic action movie, Olympus Has Fallen opens with an American flag. The President, a clean-cut and earnest Aaron Eckhart (Bill Pulman’s two-thousand-and-teens replacement), is boxing with his favorite Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) at Camp David. Fast-forward to 18 months later: the two have fallen out over a tragic accident, Butler’s character is exiled to a desk job, and a carefully coordinated North Korean terrorist group is attacking the White House. The supporting cast is impressive— Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, and Ashley Judd—but you can probably guess what happens next.
Director Antoine Fuqua makes two kinds of movies: gritty, award-winning dramas (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest) and big-budget action films, filled with muscular men and lots firearms (Shooter, Tears of the Sun, Bait). Over the course of his 15-year career, he’s made more of the latter, but it’s unclear whether this is by choice or by circumstance. Fuqua is frequently attached to promising sounding independent films, which frequently fall through. In 2004, Fuqua was set to reunite with Training Day Oscar-winner Denzel Washington on American Gangster, but when financing stalled the project, veteran director and producer Ridley Scott replaced Fuqua. According to trade publications, Fuqua is currently developing a Pablo Escobar project, a Tupac project, a film about boxing called Southpaw, a Suge Knight documentary, and an untitled project about the eighth century Chinese courtesan, Yang Guifei.
Interview met Fuqua at the Waldorf in New York, in the middle of his Olympus press tour, to discuss the appeal of Olympus and what he’s really up to next.
EMMA BROWN: How long have you been doing back-to-back interviews?
ANTOINE FUQUA: Since this morning.
BROWN: Not too bad?
FUQUA: No, you guys have been kind… are you going to be gentle? “Antoine, why did you make this movie!“
BROWN: That works. What made you want to make this movie?
FUQUA: Really? I gave you that in? I love the classic storytelling version of the movie: the hero’s journey. I love the idea of this guy who appears to have it all together and this tragic event that’s not even his fault throws him down into the dark depths of his own person—to see him rise out of that again. Between the fence and the door of the White House is a long way in the middle of a battle, so the idea that he had to earn his way back in and then fight his way back out is a great journey. Then the idea of doing a big entertainment piece and having some fun—how can you not have fun attacking the White House? [laughs] I was able to put together a great ensemble of actors who helped give it some gravity and some weight.
BROWN: There are all of those stories about the Pentagon watching The Battle of Algiers (1966) to prepare for the Iraq War—do you think they’ll watch this movie and change the way in which they respond to threats on the White House?
FUQUA: I think so. [laughs] What do you think? I would want them to. I would want them to look at it and go, “Yeah, let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.”
BROWN: Why did you want to build a real set?
FUQUA: I like being in real environments. I love being in the place that it’s about—these sets and locations are characters in the movies. Can you imagine Breakfast at Tiffany’s shot somewhere else? It’s classic. Characters are part of storytelling; they’re just as important as everything else. So for me, to try and make this movie without having my own White House, my own thing I can touch and feel and destroy, wouldn’t make sense. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
BROWN: The villains in this film are the North Koreans—has everyone been asking about Dennis Rodman and his recent visit to North Korea?
FUQUA: It keeps coming up. I don’t know Dennis. It’s bizarre. I guess it’s good for the movie, but I don’t know how it’s going to affect the movie in any way. If people like the movie, they’ll go see the movie. I think Dennis Rodman is his own reality TV. [laughs] It’s his own thing. Entertaining, but separate from this film.
BROWN: I know that you went to university on a basketball scholarship and studied engineering. How did you become a filmmaker?
FUQUA: I love movies; I grew up loving movies. I’ve always loved movies. I never thought about making movies until I took art classes and then I started studying different artists. As you study paintings, you see light and shadow, of course—Rembrandt, Delacroix. You start to understand the relationship between people and art, and images. For me, between movies that I watched and art, it was like, I’d love to make moving art. Moving pictures. How do you capture the drama of a Rembrandt painting in a movie? How do you feel that moment that they captured in two hours? I kind of fell into it and at one point, I decided I wanted to live an art life; I wanted to tell stories. I came to New York, and did what most people do—you become a PA and run and get coffee and pay your dues and learn until your opportunity comes.
BROWN: Do you think that audiences consume films in the same way in which they consume paintings and sculptures at an art exhibit?
FUQUA: No. Not even close. I don’t think you should. I think people go to the movies to be entertained, to have an experience, to disappear from their own reality for a couple of hours. If the film truly succeeds in everything the filmmaker sets out for it to be, then it’s elevated to art. It’s elevated to something special, because it gives people a visceral feeling of something they’re experiencing as a collective group. You feel something and that’s what turns it into what you may call art. There are many stories of people didn’t set out to make a film that became a classic—the whole process was a disaster, everybody hated each other, the movie itself was a disaster, everybody thought the movie and the script was going to be a piece of crap. Look at Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. Nobody wanted to make Psycho; it was crap to them. The studio didn’t want to make it. The only person that wanted to make Psycho was Hitchcock. Now, it’s considered a classic and a work of art. Who knew? I don’t think the audience goes and thinks of the movie as a piece of art—there are some independent people who may go and have a higher appreciation for filmmaking. It is a great art form, but I don’t think you look at a painting and a movie with the same eye.
BROWN: Do you approach all of your films with an “I want to make art” mindset?
FUQUA: Yeah, I do. You want to take yourself seriously, and you want to make something that you hope will have resonance with the audience. You want to bring your perspective and what you consider your talent to that piece of work, and you move forward in that direction. Sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes it’s met with resistance because you’re dealing with situations where, for everybody else, it’s a piece of business. If you don’t go at it like that, then you’ll never get a movie made. Movies are so hard to get made—every step of the way of making a movie has obstacles. If you don’t have that passion, if you don’t have that vision, if you don’t believe it’s a piece of art worth making, then you probably won’t get it made—you won’t have a chance for it to be something special. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but if you don’t go at it that way, then you don’t have a shot in hell for it to be anything.
BROWN: You have so many films listed as “in production.” What is your next project?
FUQUA: Maybe Southpaw. That’s the one I want to do next. That’s the one I’m actively focused on right now—going to actors, Harvey Weinstein. That one’s very real. Harvey’s obviously very real. The script, I love, love, love. Eminem I’m still talking to; I just had a meeting with his manager. We’re also having meetings with a couple of other actors that I love. I met with Bradley Cooper, and he loved the script. It’s just timing. Like I said, [you’ve] got to have a passion because you never know whether the money’s there, whether the timing’s [right]. You just have to keep believing and making movies that you want to make.
BROWN: Do you generally have several scripts you’d like to develop at once—a first, second, and third choice?
FUQUA: You try to. It’s hard to, because they’re not all great. You look at the script and you go, “I really like the idea of this,” [and] somebody announces it, when really you just like the idea of it, and you’re saying, “If we work with the writers, it could become something more of what I see.” That lines up in the trades that you’re doing on a movie, but that might be a year or two down the line. Tupac is something that, of course I want to make the Tupac movie, I love Tupac, but when that movie was announced, we didn’t even have a script yet. It was just being written. People announce things too soon. If you go to any filmmaker—Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Ben Affleck, Michael Mann—you go in their offices and there are scripts everywhere and there’s about four or five of them you really want to make. But whether you can get them up and running… you think that actor is the best actor for it, but he’s tied up for two years, [so] that script becomes, “Well, let’s see what happens in two years or next year,” or, “This actor’s not available until then, and I only see that person playing that role, then I’ll wait.” It’s part of the business and also part of the creative process—putting all the pieces together to make a movie, so that they all line up. Sometimes it looks like you have a lot of projects lined up, but some of them are in different stages.
BROWN: Do you have an actor in mind for Tupac?
FUQUA: I don’t.
BROWN: Not Anthony Mackie?
FUQUA: I love Anthony Mackie, but I’m not sure if the age is an issue now or not.
OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN COMES OUT IN THEATERS TOMORROW, MARCH 22.